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Riverbank’s Transformation Into Park Triggers Flood of Memories

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Daniel Tirre stands at the edge of the Rio Hondo’s murky green water, resurrecting images from the past.

Decades-old memories come flooding back: Families lolling on blankets, children chasing crayfish through the shallow stream, people dancing to the joyful strumming of guitars.

“What I enjoyed the most were all the people . . . so happy, dancing and singing,” said Tirre, 80, gesturing to the sandy banks. “Everyone would come here.”

For years, this small beach at the edge of Los Angeles County has been hidden from view, boxed in by tangled brush and forgotten by many. Old-timers in East Los Angeles still remember the spot and reminisce about the hot summer days they spent along the river beach, dubbed Rancho de Don Daniel or Marrano Beach.

Now, this riverbank--the Eastside answer to the broad, white sands of the Pacific--is being introduced to a new generation.

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With $925,000 in funding from a county parks measure passed in 1992, the 12-acre patch surrounded by open fields has been transformed into a public park.

The dark green Rio Hondo snakes through this small swath of land wedged between Montebello and Whittier. Flocks of local residents started coming to the shady banks here in the 1930s to swim, relax and socialize.

Mariachis roamed up and down the waterfront and young people danced in the evening light. Children munched on shaved ice they purchased from small stands.

Then the freeways came, providing faster access to the popular ocean beaches. Oil wells sprouted up around the Rio Hondo and industries dumped pollutants into its waters, creating a foul smell. The beach practically disappeared, enclosed by wild, bamboo-like shoots of arundo that quickly took over the area.

But on a recent warm morning, Tirre stands at the edge of open, reshaped banks that gently roll down to the water. Steps lead down to the sand where the brush has been cleared away. Non-native plants have been yanked out and replaced by new cottonwood, rose and sycamore trees. Cranes and blue herons wade through the still water. Dragonflies dart through the air.

Six young boys on bicycles skid to a stop at the edge of the water. Shouting with glee, they pick their way across the knee-deep river, trying to catch the small fish darting past their legs.

Tirre smiles. The beach is back.

This stretch of the Rio Hondo, bordered by the only riverfront beach in the county, is the last remaining free-flowing part of the river. The rest has been lined with concrete.

“It’s a really rare area, and we’re thrilled it was left,” said Reva Concoff of the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, the public parks agency developing the project. “This was a unique opportunity to create a riverfront beach.”

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The beach will be officially dedicated and reopened Sept. 13 under a new name: “Bosque del Rio Hondo Natural Area.” The riverfront is now dotted with with picnic tables and interpretive kiosks. A hiking trail and footbridge cut through the brush to the water, and parking and restrooms have been added. The park, at the intersection of San Gabriel and Rosemead boulevards, will be open every day from sunrise to sunset.

The project was championed by County Supervisor Gloria Molina, who remembers picnicking along the river with her family as a young girl growing up in East Los Angeles.

“I think a lot of families, including ours, have a lot of fond memories from there,” Molina said. “I rarely went to the beach, but on Sundays after church, we would tear home, put on cutoffs and a swimsuit and go to the riverbed for a picnic.

“I just think it’s going to be a place so many people are going to enjoy. It will remind them of something their parents and grandparents did.”

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The land around the beach, which lies in a flood plain, is brimming with history. The banks lie next to part of the 1,200-mile Anza Trail that marks the path taken by a group of Spanish colonists who traveled from Sonora, Mexico, to establish a mission in San Francisco. The river also flows by the site of the original San Gabriel Mission established by Father Junipero Serra.

But many remember the area best as a popular destination for generations of Eastside and San Gabriel Valley residents.

Tirre recalls that on Saturday nights in the 1930s, people would put a pot of menudo, or tripe soup, on the campfire and cooked it all night. The next day, Tirre would pull out his clarinet, his father would play the guitar and the beach-goers would rise and dance along the banks.

“It was a getaway for the average person, the poor people,” he said.

First named Rancho de Don Daniel after a nearby landowner, the riverfront beach was also called Marrano--Spanish for dirty or pig.

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How it came by what some people consider its crude name is open to debate, with at least a half dozen explanations.

One story attributes the name to the still, murky water of the swimming hole. Others tales said Marrano came from a pig farm upstream. Yet another tale has it that a big flood swept away pigs from a nearby ranch and deposited them on the river’s banks. To celebrate the end of the flood, that legend continues, the residents roasted the beached pigs.

Many current residents bristle at the name Marrano, saying it’s an ugly moniker for the popular spot. But others say Marrano Beach has crept into the lexicon of the sprawling communities around East Los Angeles, and will be difficult to dislodge.

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“I don’t think you’ll ever have the ability to wipe out that name; it’s traditional,” said Rosemead City Councilman Bob Bruesch, an elementary school teacher. In the 1960s, his young students took him down to the stream and taught him how to catch crayfish in the still waters. “It will always be Marrano Beach to the old-timers.”

Daniel Castro, provost at East Los Angeles College, remembers his parents loading all the kids in the car on Sundays and heading to the river from their house in Pasadena.

“We didn’t have the money to go all the way to the beach,” said Castro, 52. “But when you’re young, and don’t know any better, that’s the beach. It was pretty close to Disneyland for us.”

He and his friends would try to float down the shallow riverbed in inner tubes and chase polliwogs through the green water.

“It was a place everybody knew,” he said. “When kids in the neighborhood knew you were going to Marrano Beach, all of a sudden you had tons of friends.”

Castro has slipped references to Marrano Beach into “The Sancho Show,” a radio program he hosts Saturday nights on KPCC-FM (89.3). On his show, Castro jokes about his fictional Marrano Beach Club, aerobic studio and condominium association.

“My intent is to get people to start talking, because it’s the grandparents who have to teach the youngsters about a lot of the stuff that hasn’t been written down,” Castro said. “It’s oral tradition, and people just went nuts with it.”

Listeners began swapping stories about the beach, which only a few could still locate. One man even named his new Whittier silk-screening company “Marrano Beach Designer Sports Wear,” and printed up dozens of T-shirts honoring the local spot.

Old-timers hope the reopening will transform the beach from a piece of local lore to a popular recreation spot once again.

“I have beautiful memories of that place,” said Jack Bernal, 65, who remembers the beach as Rancho de Don Daniel. His father, a beer salesman in East Los Angeles, used to take the family there on weekends. “It was a biggie for us,” Bernal said. “I’d just as soon go there as the regular beach. I hope some young children start to go to this place and that they have the memories 50 years hence that I have now.”


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